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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), or behaviors that make them feel driven to do something (compulsions).
Often the person carries out the behaviors to get rid of the obsessive thoughts. But this only provides temporary relief. Not doing the obsessive rituals can cause great anxiety.
Obsessive-compulsive neurosis; OCD
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Doctors do not know the exact cause of OCD. Factors that may play a role include head injury, infections, and abnormal function in certain areas of the brain. Genes (family history) seems to play a strong role.
Most people who develop it show symptoms by age 30.
There are many types of obsessions and compulsions. Examples include:
- Checking and rechecking actions (such as turning out the lights and locking the door)
- Excessive counting
- Excessive fear of germs
- The compulsion to repeatedly wash the hands to ward off infection
The person usually recognizes that the behavior is excessive or unreasonable.
Signs and tests
Your own description of the behavior can help diagnose the disorder. A physical exam can rule out physical causes. A mental health assessment can rule out other mental disorders.
Questionnaires can help diagnose OCD and track the progress of treatment.
OCD is treated using a combination of medication and behavioral therapy.
Medicines used include antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers.
Talk therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy; CBT) has been shown to be effective for this disorder. During therapy, the patient is exposed many times to a situation that triggers the obsessive thoughts, and learns to gradually tolerate the anxiety and resist the urge to do the compulsion. Therapy can also be used to reduce stress and anxiety and resolve inner conflicts.
OCD is a long-term (chronic) illness with periods of severe symptoms followed by times of improvement. A completely symptom-free period is unusual. Most people improve with treatment.
Long-term complications of OCD have to do with the type of obsessions or compulsions. For example, constant handwashing can cause skin breakdown. OCD does not usually progress into another disease.
Calling your health care provider
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if your symptoms interfere with daily life, work, or relationships.
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Feinstein RE, deGruy FV III. Difficult patients: Personality disorders and somatoform complaints. In: Rakel RE, ed. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 46.
Koran LM, Hanna GL, Hollander E, Nestadt G, Simpson HB, et al. Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2007;164:5-53.
Nestadt G, Grados M, Samuels JF. Genetics of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2010;33:141–158.
- Last reviewed on 2/26/2013
- Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Blackman, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
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This page was last updated: May 20, 2014